Archive for Karate

Shut Up and Train

Shut Up and Train

by Jeffrey Brooks

ShutUpAndTrain (1)

Some people in the class wanted skills they could use to make their lives better. Some people were looking for approval. But it did not matter to me which they wanted in that moment, or what their motives were when they walked in the door. In that moment, in that class, I knew that the way they would get good was to train sincerely. The way they would get good that month or that year was to train consistently. Setting that as the requirement for the classes would mean that the people who wanted to get skill would get it, and the ones who merely wanted approval or status would disappear.

Long explanations of how to do techniques are not so helpful. Translating movement into language is inexact and inefficient, and it requires that the listeners then translate the instructions they have heard back into movement. It is more efficient to show a move and then ask people to copy what they see. After repeating the technique many times they become more focused, more fluid, more spontaneous, more in touch with the nuances of the movement. Then refining the movement becomes easy. No long explanation is necessary.

That is why I used to say, when I was teaching karate for hours every day for decades, that it’s best to just shut up and train. I was not commanding people in a condescending or disrespectful way. I was explaining the idea, just like I did here.

So when Sensei Reynolds painted the nine foot tall, three foot wide scroll of the words Damatte Keiko (Japanese for shut up and train) and hung the scroll in the alcove in the front of our dojo, it was not an affront or even a command. It was a reminder that the shortest path to mastery is practice.

Of course there is a time for analysis and reflection and theory. But these are like vitamins in our diet. Very small amounts are healthy and necessary.

Although the dojo no longer exists the scroll does, and the insight it represents continues to be relevant. Because, after training consistently for a time, without anyone having to say so, it becomes evident that the training period does not have boundaries.

We face the reality of our lives every moment. Not just during a training session but always. If our aim is to think, speak and act ethically, if we recognize the danger of permitting our mind and our life to be impulsive and self indulgent, if we learn the value of cultivating a calm, clear mind and an insight that penetrates the heart of reality, then every moment is an opportunity to train.

Then we do not need to freak out when we face difficulty. But what we can do, if we have trained well enough along the way, is to regard the difficulty as the reality of our life in that moment, and take responsibility for dealing with it, and face it, and resolve it or move ahead, with skill and equanimity.

We do not need to collapse into arrogance or wastefulness or self congratulation when things go well. What we can do is recognize the temptations of idleness, arrogance, greed, promiscuity and gluttony and behave properly, using our precious lifetime well, training ourselves to make progress in the good when we can.

We do not need to stand idly by when harm is done to us or others, as if having a weak mild nature that just goes with the flow is somehow good. Instead we can use our strength and skill to help where we are needed and the strength to withdraw when our service is done.

In this sense all of our life is training. And no amount of explanation, theorizing, or approval will substitute for genuine, wordless, skillful life.

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The Training That Gives Life

The Training that Gives Life

by Jeffrey Brooks


A central premise of Buddhism is that we create our own reality by the way we think, speak and act. If we act virtuously our lives become happier. If we act non-virtuously we suffer.

Virtuous actions are: treating others well, being generous, being patient, joyfully doing good, keeping the mind clear and stable, and seeing deeply into how things work. That is what we are taught to do with our time.

We are taught to not do the things that distract us, and which themselves cause us trouble: killing, stealing, lying, intoxication, sexual misconduct, splitting people apart, being lazy, being stingy, being angry and believing that our actions have no consequences.

These prescriptions are not special to Buddhism. Mature people everywhere know that what may feel good for a moment will soon turn to misery.

Following this advice allows us to experience inner peace and good relations with others. This is a natural state. What we enjoy about being on a team, in a family, in a squad, is the feeling that we are not separated from the other people. The more our lives are shared with other people, the more precious those people are to us.

Today many people live in a state of perpetual exile. Lonely, anxious, angry and afraid. This is a result of what they have done.  But, whether or not they see it, they are free at any moment to act kindly and rejoin humanity.

They might be reluctant to do this because they think they will be hurt or taken advantage of or thought foolish or will lose what they have.

But acting kindly is not the same as being weak.

American Zen and American martial arts both are permeated with the false and harmful teachings that came from generations of Japanese teachers who did not have a good Buddhist education, embraced an ethos of world conquest, and expressed their advocacy of suicide terrorism in words borrowed from Buddhism.

“The sword that gives life” and “If the enemy falls on your sword it is his fault” and “Treat your life like so much straw” or “Be indifferent to whether you live or die” are not Buddhism. In their writings, DT Suzuki, his teacher Soen, Yasutani, some of their American students and followers that spread out from the California Zen centers of the 60’s and 70’s, and some of their followers today, write and speak as if there is wisdom in these expressions.

In the safety of a dojo, where the worst that can happen will be breaks and bruises, wounded pride and delayed gratification, there may be some fascination with the bold sound of these expressions. But in the world of the military and of law enforcement, in the culture of people who are actually required to face danger, no one falls for this.

There may be a time when sacrifice is required by duty. And there are more important things in this world than staying alive. But to be indifferent to your own life, to instruct people not to care about whether they live or die from one moment to the next is not Buddhism and it’s not warriorship.  These Japanese Zen teachers were advocating that the young kamikaze pilots and front line troops believe in the same inverted values that the jihadi terrorists of today are encouraging their bombers and suicide bombers to believe.

There is a time to fight. But the motive must be just and the means must be in place. Placing loyalty to authority above all other virtues, filling your heart and mind with hate and teaching that it will only be relieved by killing, that blind obedience and team interest and the murder of innocents will be rewarded in the afterlife, has nothing to do with Buddhism.

There may be a time to fight. That may bring a moment of respite in a crisis. It will not be the source of lasting happiness or peace.

As human beings we can protect each other with our lives. By making our lives useful. Not by throwing them away. By being strong for each other and kind to each other. Then when danger comes we will be prepared to stop it. And when peace follows we will not descend into self indulgence but can continue to practice virtue, creating the causes of happiness and the end of suffering for everyone.

And as we live this way we see that the boundary of my self extends far beyond my body, my mind, and my stuff.

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Extra Credit

Extra Credit

by Jeffrey Brooks

If you practice sincerely your life will change. Your mind will become more stable and clear. Your relationships with others will become more pleasant and wholesome. Your understanding of what is good to do and what is good to avoid will become more natural and more profound.

These changes occur when we follow the advice of the Buddha as described in the Dharma teachings and as modeled by the enlightened Sangha. Sometimes doing this is easy. Sometime it is difficult. It is difficult when it conflicts with our long standing habits of behavior or of mind; or when it is obstructed by the culture or environment in which we find ourselves. Then we need to use our intelligence and character to find a way to keep our practice on track – with a good, peaceful meditation schedule and good, positive ethical conduct. It is not always easy but it is always possible.

In Mahayana practice the measure of our success and the material of our practice is the well being of other people. If we begin to develop spiritual pride we diverge from Mahayana; we need to note this tendency and dismiss it, because otherwise it will obstruct our practice.

In English the word pride has several meanings. The two relevant ones (other than a bunch of lions) are arrogance and dignity. These are different and in spiritual jargon are sometimes confused. We do want self confidence and we do want dignity. We want to be proud of ourselves and of our purpose. These are consistent with the Bodhisattva action of “Joyful Effort,” the fourth of the six Paramitas or actions of the Bodhisattva.

But we want to avoid arrogance, avoid separating ourselves from others, avoid seeing our interests as divergent from theirs.

When we develop spiritual pride in this negative meaning of the word we begin to seek distinction as a spiritually accomplished person. We seek recognition by other people of our special goodness or abilities. We seek admiration, approval, ranks, titles, diplomas and so on. This is distracting and harmful if it infects our motives.

In the dojo it is evident when people preen and pose and signal their rank or status or ability.  We can see self regard continually mixed with their interactions with others. This is a sign of small achievement and a lack of self confidence.

We should note this tendency in ourselves and delete it so that we can practice without the distraction and waste of energy this habit of mind produces. We do not need extra credit for being a spiritual practitioner, and we do not need to seek it.

Then we are free to live each moment of our practice for its own sake, for the sake of the wonderful results we experience in this life, and for the good effects we can have on the lives of the people around us, and in the entire universe.

Shantideva in the Bodhicharyavatara verse 109 says:

The work of bringing benefit to beings

Will not make me proud and self admiring

The happiness of others is itself my satisfaction

I will not expect some ripening reward

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The Moment of Silence

The Moment of Silence

by Jeffrey Brooks

When you teach karate you do not have to talk.

You do not need to explain things or describe moves. You can just do the movement and the other person can copy it. Then you can move together for a while. When the time comes for the person to learn a refinement or an adjustment of the move then you can stop, slow down and repeat the move a few times, demonstrating the refinement. Then you can continue to move. You do not have to translate the move into words for the student, and ask them to turn the words back into movement. Let them see and copy you.

The words are just extra, most of the time.

On September 11, 2001 I was at the jail, waiting to enter. One of the people that worked there told me “The first tower is down.” It sounded like a problem. It sounded like one of the radio towers that police, fire and EMS use to respond to calls for service was not working. There had been a problem with the radios that week.

One of the things you can count on in jail is a TV being on. People were staring at it.

That night on the dojo schedule was a class for the advanced group. People had been on the phone all day, or watching the news. I opened the dojo not expecting to see anyone. But everyone showed up. I went to the front of the room, where I begin the class. No one said anything, they just waited. I took a ready posture which everyone there recognized, and they could see what I had in mind.

Everyone took their ready position too.

We began to move. In silence. First in the sunset. Then in the moonlight. We moved in unison for the whole training period. Without a word. And without a word the class ended and everyone went home.

We speak to make a connection with other people. To share a feeling or an idea with them. There are times when our ideas and feelings do not need to be translated into language to be conveyed to other people.

There are times when silence is plenty.

Jeff Brooks’ law enforcement career has included assignments in patrol, as a firearms and defensive tactics instructor, and as a task force officer.  He has taught martial arts and Zen for many years, and has studied in the US and on Okinawa.

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Beginner’s Mind

Beginner’s Mind

by Jeffrey Brooks

Traffic was barely moving and the street was packed form curb to curb with drivers who were not where they wanted to be. Talk about postponing joy. These guys considered it cancelled.

A car sped up. A cab stopped short. Brakes squealed. Bumpers collided. A hood crumpled. A radiator hissed.

The drivers bailed out of their cars already sweating, with tempers hotter than the walls of the oven at Ray’s Original Pizza.

But there they were. Face to face. A pace apart, shouting with outrage, spitting bullets, faces contorted and red.

One had enough. He spun forward and with a furious round house kick he brought the blade of his foot within a half inch of the chest of the motionless cabbie in front of him. The cabbie sized the guy up in a nanosecond and smacked him down to the pavement.

I recognized the technique of the kicker instantly. In his tae kwon do class, with rules requiring light or no contact, the move would have scored him a point. Here the habits he developed for skillful sparring cost him a septum.

Another incident, this one in training:

Two guys are practicing together. One is an experienced martial artist, the other just a few months into training. The experienced guy had grown up in the country, doing hard physical work every day for years, before beginning his professional career. He had the even confidence of someone who has done what he needed to do. The inexperienced guy thought the world of himself and to him the rest of the world appeared in desperate need of special ed. This guy did not want to condition his body incrementally over time. He wanted to go for it. He decided he would teach the big ox a lesson. The new guy threw a massive punch, with his whole body behind it, at the center of the chest of the experienced man. The big guy leaned a shoulder back, letting the punch slip by. The new guy’s punch connected with the stationary forearm of the experienced guy, just below the big guy’s elbow. With a pop the arm of the new guy shattered and became useless.

Consistent training in martial arts is extremely valuable. There is no way to make the most of your skills, your body, your mind or your will without consistently training and sincerely challenging yourself every time you do.

But there are extremes to be avoided in training. One is assuming that because you know a technique and that it has worked time and again under the controlled conditions of the training hall that you are somehow inoculated against attack.

Another is the temptation to artificially ‘make it real’ and give or get a permanent injury – hands, feet, knees and brain are the big ones – which lead to disability not strength. The body is not designed to take injurious forces again and again. There may come a time when the risk is required, but day after day as the injuries accumulate the result of training will be the opposite of the one you hoped to achieve.

For many of us the experience of the street and our experience in the dojo balance each other, and correct the limitations of the other. The street keeps us from getting complacent by believing that outcomes are foreordained. The dojo provides us with a constant reminder that our skills need to be practiced to stay sharp.

I was out toward the edge of a little riot, moving back toward the center where the crowd was surging. I heard a scream and saw a guy with something in his hand running away from the scream and toward me.  I told him to stop. He slowed down. There was no doubt that he had just assaulted someone and took something from them.  I could not back off and call the police. I was the police. I told him to stop right there. He did. I told him to drop it now. He did.  I could see it was not his.

He was cool. He knew he was caught. Getting the first handcuff on him was easy but as I began to move his wrists together he started to tense up and turn. His friends or people who suddenly now considered themselves to be his friends were gathering around. I had radioed in but it was hard to relate exact locations. I needed to get this guy under control immediately.

You never know in advance how this kind of thing will go. In hindsight things seem inevitable. In the moment they are entirely fluid. Writing the report later in the shift you can describe the course of events in a logical narrative, explaining what you saw and heard and your rationale for what you did. You can convey the tactics and the legal requirements in a clear and reasoned sequence. In the heat of the moment, in the midst of chaos, violence, threats of violence, distraction and stimulation overload, all you can rely on is your training and your colleagues.

That this guy had hurt someone was clear. The victim came running up after him screaming. That he would continue to do this to other people was likely – from what I saw he was familiar with how to do this and it was not his first time. Would it have been compassionate of me to let him run off and tell the girl not to be so attached to her property, that it was only money, and to get new credit cards and ID? Would it have been compassionate of me to let this guy go on to prey upon other people, people who trusted him perhaps, people who are weaker than him or vulnerable for whatever reason at the moment at which they encounters him? Would it have been compassionate of me to allow him to collect the terrible karma that would come if he continued to steal, intimidate, injure and maybe kill some innocent people? What kind of life could he expect if he were not stopped from going down this path? Couldn’t I benefit him, his victim, and all the other potential victims he might harm over the course of the evening or of his lifetime, by stopping him decisively right now?

I thought so.

So I applied my knee to a pressure point I knew how to use very well and which I hoped would stun him. It did. I quickly got the other hand cuff on and several other officers assisted me in getting him to the back of the patrol vehicle.

There have been times when it went other ways.

The phrase used in martial arts training that refers to the openness to fresh experience is called “beginner’s mind.” This concept is sometimes misunderstood as making a virtue of inexperience or of ignorance. That is not right.

The “beginner’s mind” does not presume to know the outcome of a situation. A beginner’s mind responds spontaneously to shifting conditions. It does not rely on rote or autopilot responses and expect them to automatically work.

Some western Zen practitioners have taken this phrase up as a slogan to justify their non-trying and not-training. They miss the point. And under the pressure of life and death, the very pressure they pay lip service to every day in the Zendo, that approach proves useless.

At another point in Buddhist liturgy also it famously says that “life is like a dream, an illusion…” and so on. How is it that people can miss the point of this?

Buddhism never says that life is merely a dream, merely an illusion. As if it was nothing. As if it was meaningless. Quite the contrary.

It is like them. Life is like a dream or an illusion in that like them life arises and vanishes without a trace. Like them life continually changes. Like them life is contingent on causes and conditions. And like them conditions which we think may be permanent and unchanging are instead continually shifting, requiring us to rely upon our training, to always be strong, do right, and stay focused on our purpose.

That is the mindset of a sincere beginner. It is good to keep it.

Jeff Brooks’ law enforcement career has included assignments in patrol, as a firearms and defensive tactics instructor, and as a task force officer. He has taught martial arts and Zen for many years, and has studied in the US and on Okinawa.

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